Transcontinental Series: United

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This is a post in my new Transcontinental Series aimed at helping flyers choose the best options while flying coast-to-coast, as well as strategies on leveraging elite status and miles to get the most valuable upgrades possible. Other posts include: American AirlinesDelta, JetBlue, and Virgin America. Today I’ll be talking about United’s transcontinental routes to/from JFK and the best ways for you to get upgraded on them.

United offers p.s. (premium service) on its JFK-LAX/SFO routes. 

Planes and Classes of Service
United flies 757-200 p.s. planes on their JFK-LAX/SFO routes. It has just 3 classes of service: first class, business class and Economy Plus. That’s right, no regular old economy on the plane. Hence the “p.s. (Premium Service)” attribution. First class has 12 lie-flat seats, business class has 26 recliner seats with 54-inch pitch and 20.5 inches of width – pretty standard, though still narrow – and Economy Plus has 72 seats. The p.s. planes also are all equipped with Gogo WiFi.

United also flies from Newark to Los Angeles/San Francisco. Although they don’t have premium planes, those routes are eligible for complimentary upgrades. Some flights are operated by 757s with lie flat beds, but seeing as EWR and San Francisco are United hubs, it’s hard to snag the upgrades – especially with United’s aggressive buy-up program. For the sake of comparing to AA/Delta, I decided to focus on the JFK p.s. service.

United First Class p.s. JFK-LAX/SFO

United First p.s.

  • Complimentary amenities including eye shade, ear plugs and dental kit
  • Complimentary duvet and pillow for use during your flight
  • Lie-flat seat
  • Personal media players featuring touch screen capability and more than 20 movies and 50 TV shows, hundreds of MP3s and video games
  • Noise-reducing headsets
  • Power outlets
  • Premier Access check-in, baggage handling, boarding, deplaning and security lanes (where available)
  • First class lounge access (even on award tickets)
United Business p.s. seats.

United Business p.s.

  • Reclining seats with up to 55 inches between the back of one seat and the front edge of the next
  • Premier Access check-in, baggage handling, boarding, deplaning and security lanes (where available)
  • Power outlets
  • Personal media players featuring touch screen capability and more than 20 movies and 50 TV shows, hundreds of MP3s and video games
  • Noise-reducing headsets
  • Access to United Club in New York (JFK), Los Angeles and San Francisco (even on award tickets)
When I’ve flown Business, the real disappointment was the in-flight entertainment, which were tiny 7-inch handheld LCD screens loaded with about 20 movies and 30 TV episodes and some music. Plus, you couldn’t really use them while working or eating since you’d need to set them down on the tray table.

United Economy p.s.

  • Economy Plus seating throughout the entire cabin, offering up to 5 extra inches of legroom
  • Fresh food options, including breakfast, lunch and dinner, available for purchase on flights departing prior to 8 p.m.
  • Power outlets
Using Miles
United Business p.s. dining. One-way business awards start at 25,000 miles.

Award travel on United transcontinental routes start at 12,500 miles for coach each-way for saver availability, or 25,000 miles each-way for standard availability. Business Class awards start 25,000 miles each-way for saver availability or 50,000 miles each-way for standard availability. First Class awards are 35,000 miles each-way for saver availability or 70,000 miles each way for standard availability.

What I like the most about United’s p.s. service is the amazing amount of “low-level” award availability – even during peak times. This is a great option if you have Ultimate Rewards points or American Express Membership Rewards (transferred to Aeroplan) since fares can get ridiculous on that route – especially in business class. Just remember that United charges a $75 last-minute ticketing fee for all awards booked within 21 days, though paying this fee and using miles can still make a lot of sense when redeeming for last minute flights on this route, which can be extremely expensive.

Elite Benefits
United p.s. flights are not valid for complimentary premier upgrades (whereas Delta does allow complimentary Medallion upgrades and American for Executive Platinum members). Customers wishing to upgrade must use regional premier upgrades or global premier upgrades to upgrade. Premier members will earn two Regional Premier Upgrades when they reach 75,000 premier qualifying miles or 90 premier qualifying segments, plus two more for each 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS earned thereafter. Regional premier upgrades can also be used on all flights between the continental U.S. and Hawaii, as well as all between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO).

Premier 1K (100,000 elite miles) members earn 6 one-way systemwide upgrades at hitting 100,000 EQMs, and then 2 more for each additional 50,000 elite miles earned. These are valid on any fare class and are transferable to others and eligible on Copa flights as well. You will also earn two more for each 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS earned after reaching Premier 1K. Each global premier upgrade is valid for a single one-way, one-cabin upgrade so you can’t upgrade from economy to first, only economy to business, or business to first.

Other Upgrade Strategies
United is known for selling upgrades in advance so you can always log in to to view your reservation and see if it offers you a “buy-up” to business or first class. On a recent business class award I was offered the opportunity to buy up to first for $400 – not worth it in my opinion since I find the business class seats comfortable enough and if I really wanted to fly first, I’d just shell out the extra 10,000 miles needed beyond a business class award.

Other Perks

United First Lounge at LAX.

United offers First Class lounges and regular Club access for business class travelers between JFK and Los Angeles/San Francisco on both paid and award tickets. For those traveling in business class, customers will have access to the United Club in New York (JFK), Los Angeles and San Francisco. Customers  traveling in First Class will have access to the United International First Lounge with complimentary liquor, hors d’oeuvres and breakfast in New York (JFK), Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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